Tingling with grit and tension, this crime drama about a Boston gang lord finds all the right places in terms of cruel unease and territorial threat but falls short in true interest and classic gangster material.
Nearly all of South Boston is controlled by dangerously mean Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) but of course he wants the whole pie. That chance arises when childhood friend turned FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) comes to him for information about other troubles and Bulger uses his new found informant status to commit more crimes and rise in power.
Scott Cooper directs this 2 hour feature with enough stability, there’s no showing off, it’s a simple take of grime and bleakness to show us the world we’re getting ourselves settled in for. It’s perhaps this stable nature that makes the film feel a trifle too long and what with the FBI back and forth, it begins dragging as we come to a quite clear cut ending considering the choice to open on testimonials from Bulger’s former allies. I believe that Cooper captures the alarming nature of the Boston boss better, these scenes of his true deeper nastiness spark something in the movie that I wanted more of.
British playwright Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk take care of the screenplay and they do a fine job of the criminal rise but the story sags in the law department. The entire FBI narrative that then mixes in with Whitey Bulger’s growth becomes almost tedious. Also a lot more could have been done with the menace of Bulger as previously wished. That’s who he really is, underneath the care for old ladies and his child, he is a worryingly deranged man on the warpath for money and control, so seeing more of his life without interruptions of the ever annoying Connolly would have been a welcome change.
To me, one of the, if not the strongest element throughout was the score by Junkie XL who really grasped the unnerving quality of this environment and who Bulger is as a person. The music almost bleeds out of the scenes filling the audience with that cold dread as we wait to see what happens next. It’s that ‘Goodfellas’ feeling the film has a number of times, the two sided behaviour of Whitey like Tommy, the gang working together, the tone of the film, sadly it doesn’t keep up with that Scorsese trend because of never really connecting us to a character to lead the way, even if the music is constantly dark and brooding, the movie isn’t.
The execution of scenes like Bulger meeting Connolly’s wife in their home is so tense and the pair of actors create such edgy dark drama that it spikes the film for a moment. Ultimately, it is a film with men ruling the roost, women are subjected to prostitution, housewifery or death. The men beside Bulger kind of pale too, they blend into each other that by the end and the true life facts, some may have forgotten what they’d done or couldn’t care.
Johnny Depp is back on form to tell the truth, after so many childish gurning episodes for Burton and beyond, he slips under the mask of Bulger and becomes a convincing crook. The slicked hair, his hollowed cheeks and pinprick eyes do more than enough to make him look ghostly, but Depp provides a demeanour to further that deathlike stance he has over the story. At the same time it does feel like another performance because of how different he looks. Joel Edgerton is a great actor and is more than capable as the agent but his plot is something I couldn’t invest 100% in, therefore he feels like an annoying distraction as he falls down a slippery slope of corruption. Dakota Johnson is little more than a cameo as the non lip biting partner of Bulger. Benedict Cumberbatch gets to play a senator, a man of corruption being Bulger’s brother, he’s alright but isn’t engaging and his accent isn’t a help either. Juno Temple crops up in a short lived spritely role to show off the danger of Whitey. It is an ensemble cast of big names but it never feels that way.
Led strongly by a promising Depp, hopefully on the route to good things, ‘Black Mass’ isn’t a strong entry to the gangster/crime genre but it’s up there being mean, grim and heavy.